Like so many people who settle in California, Mark Twain loved to eat. Permeating his oeuvre are memories of meals, many of them relished during long-past childhood summers spent on his uncle’s Missouri farm — where the young Twain harvested hickory nuts, tapped sugar maples, foraged wild fruit, and hunted ducks, turkeys, geese, prairie chickens, deer, opossums, and raccoons. In A Tramp Abroad, he reminisced about breakfasting American-style on buckwheat cakes, coffee, and Porterhouse steaks two inches thick.
“When he writes about those foods so specifically — when he writes, ‘The meals: It makes me cry to think of them’ — you know he’s back there in his mind again,” said Andrew Beahrs, who celebrates those meals in his new book Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods. “When Twain writes, ‘I can call back the prairie. … I can feel the rain of hickory nuts upon my head,’ it’s almost as if he’s meditating,” said Beahrs, who traveled from coast to coast seeking dishes and ingredients mentioned by Twain.
In an Arkansas high-school gymnasium, he ate raccoon with 1,000 other diners, including Miss Arkansas and the Arkansas governor. For the annual fete known as the Gillett Coon Supper, “they brine the raccoon overnight, then cut off the fat and cook it with carrots and onions and black pepper. Then they smoke it and pour barbecue sauce over it,” said the author, who will be at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland) on Wednesday, July 21. “It’s like a gamy pot roast. It’s not something there’s a lot of national demand for, but they’re doing something distinctive with local ingredients, so it’s getting away from the monotony and uniformity that corporations thrive on.”
Studying archeology as a UC Berkeley grad student gave Beahrs a taste for writing about history — first in his novels Strange Saint and The Sin Eater, and now in this homage to a beloved author who wrote ecstatically of coffee, oysters, baked apples, unpasteurized cream — and the forty-pound, three-foot-long Lahontan cutthroat trout that once thrived in Lake Tahoe.
They’ve been extinct in the lake since 1930, vanquished by diseases and introduced species.
Beahrs was relieved to find Lahontan cutthroats not too far away in Nevada’s Pyramid Lake, where they are prized by the Paiute tribe on whose land the lake lies. His search for the wild grouse known as prairie chickens proved somewhat sadder.
“During Twain’s youth, there were twelve million of these birds,” said Beahrs. “Twain knew prairie chickens at their absolute peak. They were being hunted literally by the wagonload.” But what really did them in was the transformation of American grasslands into cornfields.
Near-extinctions aside, researching the book “was almost entirely a hopeful experience,” because although some of Twain’s favorite foods are gone or altered beyond recognition, many remain.
“At its best, American food has been fresh and local for a long time. These aren’t modern catchphrases.” 7 p.m., free. GreatGoodPlace.Indiebound.com